Saturday, September 13, 2014

Les voyages forment la jeunesse

The French have a saying:  Les voyages forment la jeunesse.  It means that traveling broadens the mind.  The saying limits it to youth.  But I wouldn’t be so categorical.
     During my last stay in France, I took several trips.  Several voyages.
TGV Paris-Rennes
     On the first one, I took a train from Paris to Saint Malo, to visit old friends.  As I never travel without something to read, I was fishing out my book-of-the-moment when the gentleman in the seat next to me spotted the title and said “Good choice”.
     As he hadn’t spoken to me before that, beyond a nod of the head upon sitting down, I was a bit surprised.  It turns out he was a professor and liked the author, Daniel Pennac.  “He’s quite poetic in a very modern way,” he critiqued.
     That led into a lively and fascinating conversation about literature, politics, economics, travel... which eventually disturbed the grumpy lady sitting in front of us who must have thought train cars should be like holy chapels:  silent as a tomb.  She rose up from her seat, turned toward us and commanded us in a chilled voice to stop bothering everyone, although she was the only one who seemed even to have noticed our conversation.  We looked at each other, amazed.  Then we both shrugged in unison and I plunged back into my book, he into his newspaper.
     We whispered softly on and off after that but it wasn’t the same.  When the train reached Rennes we both got off.  He knew I was going on to St. Malo and wished me a good crossing and a lovely week-end.  “I hope we meet again,” he said and walked off toward the exit as I crossed the platform to my other train.
     He was a lovely man and I should have gotten his address.

Sailing out of St. Malo
The next nice person I met worked on the ferry I took over to England. Well, on one of the ferries, the second one, from the island of Jersey to Weymouth via Guernsey.  My assigned seat was near his travel assistance post and I asked him a few questions.  After Guernsey things got quiet and his answers got longer until he was asking me questions.  He was very helpful and quite friendly and I learned a lot about ferry services.
Condor Ferries
     For instance, that the ferry used to go directly from Weymouth to St. Malo, but as the crew turns right around and heads back, that made for 18-hour days.  So now they just do part of the route and their days only total 10 hours.  Or that the ferry boats used to break down more often because they were always running and it wore out the engines.  Or that the hydrofoils were taken out of service because they were fast, yes, but they could only handle foot passengers and not cars.  Plus much, much more.
     When 48 hours later I boarded the return ferry, my assigned seat was again in the same general area:  near the restaurant and the information center.  And when the staff showed up, the head steward was that same jovial man.  So we had another fact-filled crossing to Jersey, which made the 3+ hour trip go much faster.
     He wished me well as I walked off toward the gangplank, then waved as I headed for Ferry 4 of the week-end.  He’d told me he liked his job.  And it showed.

Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle Airport
But trains and ferries are all relatively short ordeals compared to transatlantic flights.
     As I sat in the “holding area” for my flight back to the States, the quiet lady next to me asked me something and we started a conversation that lasted for the entire hour of the plane’s delay.  She was a schoolteacher from Tunisia and she was traveling to Texas to visit her daughter doing a PhD there.  She hadn’t seen her for two years and was looking forward to it.  Her flight to Paris had left at dawn so she’d been up since 4 am and still had a full day’s travel ahead of her.  She was worried our delay would cause her to miss her connection in Detroit, but when I looked at her reservation it wasn’t leaving until 8 pm local time.  I assured her that a three-hour layover in Detroit was more than enough time.
Terminal 2E
   She told me it was her birthday and I wished her many happy returns, adding that it was a strange way to spend a birthday.  We passed the time talking about our children and jobs, places we’d visited and others we’d like to see.
   A bit later she mentioned how the Tunisian revolution has changed her country.  And changed teaching.  When I asked her how, she said that, like most of the population, her high school students seemed to feel that their new-found democracy meant doing only what they wanted.  She lamented that it was difficult, if not impossible, to teach them and even harder to discipline them. Many students talked back and did their homework only if they wanted.  If they got bad grades, their parents appeared, demanding the grades be changed.  On the other hand, if she asked the parents to come in, most of the time they refused but complained to the principal about the inconvenience, whether they came or not.  “Parents come in two sorts,” she explained.  “Either they were important in the old regime and now are surly because they no longer have privileges.  Or they are now important and throw it in your face.”  And yet she seemed very calm about it all, though with a layer of sadness.  Her husband is also a professor and they’re both eagerly awaiting their retirement in a few years.  Too many years.  I told her American teachers sometimes had the exact same problems.
Paris from the sky:  (left to right) Tour Montparnasse,
Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower
     She was a pretty lady, with her black hair, sad eyes and warm smile.  But she suffered from Parkinson’s, albeit mild, and so she was traveling with assistance in the form of a wheelchair to the plane.  I asked if I might board with her to carry her purse and small bag so that she would have both hands free to negotiate the aisle to her seat.  As I walked further back to mine, I told a flight attendant that the lady in 18-J was having a birthday and she said she’d find something special for her.  Later on in the flight, I went forward to see how she was doing.  She told me how nice Air France was because somehow they’d noticed it was her birthday and had presented her with a trousse de toilette, one of those toiletries kits they give out in first class.  She was so pleased I didn’t have the heart to tell her I had tipped them off.
     When we arrived in Detroit, I waved good-bye to her as I passed and wished her well for the rest of her flight.  I’m sure her daughter was happy to see her when she finally arrived in Texas.

Versailles, from the plane
The last person who made my travels pleasant was my seatmate on that flight.  The next best thing to having an empty seat next to you on a transatlantic flight is having a pleasant person inflicted upon you. My seatmate was a very tall but trim Dutchman who proved to have just the right blend of chattiness and privacy.  What’s more, he got up from his aisle seat often enough so I didn’t have to climb over him.
     He was an engineer on cruise liners and met his American girlfriend on one of those ships.  Now she’d packed it in, but he hadn’t.  He was coming over to meet her family and as they were going through Ann Arbor, her alma mater, he offered me a ride home.  After a day touring the campus, they were going up to Traverse City, where her family lived.  I suggested she take him to Sleeping Bear Dunes.  “She has it all mapped out,” he said, not without a bit of fatigue to add to the trepidation of meeting her family.
     What time we didn’t spend watching movies, we spent discussing different parts of the world.  I told him about holding the steamship France up for 20 minutes off the Statue of Liberty.  He told me about some of his cruises - the fjords, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean.  The conversation flowed easily and I hope he has now been vetted and accepted by The Family.  I’d be curious to know where the two of them end up.

All of those trips were made far more bearable by the company I unexpectedly kept.  So you see, les voyages forment la jeunesse, even when you’re no longer young in years but only in mentality. France, Tunisia, Holland... we’re all just people looking to get from Point A to Point B as pleasantly and painlessly as possible.


N.B.  All the photos are mine, even the aerial ones.  So if you see a nut with a window seat and a camera, say hello.  That will be me.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Moules Marinières

Summer’s over and September is here, the first of the months with an “r” ... Yes, that’s for oysters, but it holds true for any shellfish.  Eating oysters only in months with an “r” in them is an idea left over from the days of poor refrigeration, when you could take your life in your hands by eating something capable of spoiling so drastically in such a short time when temperatures soar.  Muscles are great on a hot summer day at the beach, but mussels... not so much.
     (I'm told it's also a question of the months without an "r" being the months when oysters and other shellfish procreate... such as their procreation is.)
     Mention moules and people tend to think Belgium.  But mussels are actually a favorite dish all along the French coast and even far inland, where the Léon de Bruxelles franchise offers Parisian diners a wonderful alternative to other fast food joints.  AND the mussels even come with fries!
     There are many moules recipes.  The Belgians cook theirs with onion, white wine and celery.  For moules à la crème, add rich thick crème fraîche to the broth, or even curry!  One recipe I discovered years ago in a little guinguette on the Seine River downstream from Paris was moules catalanes, from the Barcelona coast, and it called for a lot of finely chopped garlic, a dash of tabasco and a bit of tomato paste in addition to the white wine.  But moules marinières is what you find the most often in France.  And it’s dead easy.
     Mussels seem to be sold by the pound in America.  Count about 1 to 1½ pound per person, which isn’t too much if you consider that the shell is the heaviest part of the mussel.  On the coast you may find them sold by the quart; one quart usually weighs 1 1/4 pound.
     You don’t need to add salt to this recipe because mussels are salt-water shellfish and they come by their salt naturally.
     When the moules are served, pick a small mussel shell to use as pinchers to eat the rest.  You won’t burn your fingers in the hot broth and everyone will think you’re a real pro.


  • 6 pounds of mussels
  • ½ c minced shallot
  • 2 c dry white wine
  • 6 large sprigs of parsley
  • 3 T butter
  • freshly ground pepper
  • minced parsley to decorate

First and foremost, if you find any shells that are open, prick the mussel inside with a sharp knife.  If the mussel is still alive, the shell will close; if it doesn’t move, it’s dead and you need to throw it out.  Seriously.
     Most mussels now come cleaned, but if not, simply scrub them with a vegetable or nail brush to remove any dirt.  If there are any barnacles on the shell just scrape them off with a knife, along with any seaweed “beard”.  Usually just rinsing the mussels well in cold water and rubbing them against each other is enough to clean them.  You may get a tiny bit of sand at the bottom of the broth once the mussels are cooked, but you can strain that off.  Some American cookbooks tell you to soak the mussels so they open and lose their sand, but then you lose that saltwater taste.  They won’t lose that much sand anyway, and any sand that is left you can strain off from the broth once they’re cooked.

- Mince the shallots.
- Put the cleaned mussels in a large pot with the white wine to create some steam.
- Add the shallots and the sprigs of parsley.
- Cover tightly and cook over high heat for about 5 minutes, shaking frequently without opening the pot so that all the mussels steam open.
- Put the cooked mussels in a large serving bowl, strain the broth, stir in the butter, and pour it over the mussels.
- Sprinkle with some chopped parsley and freshly ground pepper.
- Serve with French fries on the side - or some other type of potatoes.  Provide a large side bowl for the empty shells and a soup spoon for the delicious broth.  And some good hot French bread for dunking.

Serves 6.

Goes perfectly with a dry Grave or a Muscadet, but my personal favorite is a Pouilly-Fumé.  All whites, of course.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Liberation of Paris




  Seventy years ago today, Paris was liberated.
     On August 25, 1944, after five years of German Occupation, the Nazi commander and military governor of Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz, surrendered at the Hôtel Meurice, across from the Tuileries Gardens, one of the places where the French Résistance had started a revolt from the inside.  Enough time had been lost under the Occupation, the freedom fighters felt.  They refused to just sit by and wait for the Allied troops to free the city for them.
     A partial retreat of the German Army started on August 19th and people stayed indoors, so as not to give the retreating soldiers an excuse to vent their bad tempers.  But the streets didn’t remain deserted for long.  The FFI (Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur) - a term coined by French General de Gaulle from his wartime London HQ - took part in skirmishes throughout the French capital.  The Tuileries was one place of insurrection.  The Préfecture de Police on the Ile de la Cité was another one, and the pockmarks of the gun battle between the French and their Nazi overlords are still visible on the facade facing Notre-Dame.  General strikes erupted as of August 18th, but not in time to stop the last convoys to Buchenwald.  Résistance posters sprang up throughout the city.  Many heard the call; at least 1,000 lost their lives.
     Meanwhile, General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Western Europe, had his sights on Germany.  His intention was to head straight for the border, giving Paris a wide berth.  The French capital would take too much time and assets in guerrilla street-by-street warfare, he felt.  Plus he knew that Hitler had ordered Paris to be leveled rather than surrendered; the German army had already set fire to the Grand Palais, a stronghold of the Résistance.
     But de Gaulle, being characteristically de Gaulle, and fearing starvation and reprisals by the Nazis, said that, should Eisenhower do that, he would give the order for the French 2nd Armored Division to liberate the city on its own.  He pointed out to the American general that the Communists had been the leading, and for the first years of the Occupation the only, organized force fighting the Nazis within France.  If Paris were not freed, the way would be open for the Communists to do it themselves and then take over the government.  (As it was, the Communist Party became a respected force in French politics for years after the war because of their role during the Occupation.)  Although the USSR and the USA were Allied partners in this war effort, the specter of the future Cold War was already perceptible.  De Gaulle’s arguments won out.  French Gen. Leclerc led the 2nd Armored Division toward Paris, then through the suburbs and into the capital itself.
     General von Choltitz surrendered at his hotel on August 25th, 1944, and Paris was still standing.  It was a happy day for Paris.



A play called Diplomatie covers the secret meeting between von Choltitz and Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling, at the request of the Résistance.  No one really knows what was said.  Perhaps, even without Nordling’s intervention, von Choltitz would have disobeyed Hitler’s order to reduce Paris to rubble and refused to detonate all those tons of dynamite placed under every bridge and every monument of the French capital.  But Paris was saved in the end, and that’s all that really counts.
     A movie has since been made with the same leading actors:  Niels Arestrup and André Dussollier.
      I wrote about that play in my blog on October 21, 2011.  You can go back and read it if you want:  http://www.sandyschopbach.blogspot.fr/2011/10/out-and-about-diplomatie.html.
Diplomatie, with André Dussollier & Niels Arestrup

Fittingly, perhaps, this blog about the city I love so much is Blog Number 200 of Sandy’s France.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Out & About: Exhibits: Paris 1900


At the turn of the last century, Paris held a party:  the Exposition Universelle. It was largely a celebration of France’s colonies around the globe, second only to England’s at that time.
     But above and beyond all the xenophobic look-at-me-aren’t-I-grand-ness of the message, the media made extensive use of a new art form:  Art Nouveau.  It was a new approach to architecture and art, and it found an echo in almost every other facette of society.  Clothing changed, and with it habits.  It was a new century, and it required new ways.
     The Petit Palais - the Beaux-Arts Museum of Paris - has composed a collage of those different facettes of life in 1900.  And it’s been a hit ever since it opened in April.

Anatole Guillot
The first room, dedicated to the Exposition Universelle, was a bit of a disappointment.  Two huge areas filled with photos and posters and such about the Expo.  My stomach suddenly sank as I started to fear that the whole show was about just that and nothing more.  There were various three-dimension friezes that displayed amazing craftsmanship, and a large poster of all the national pavilions was interesting, but the topic seemed a bit more historical than artistic for my tastes.  “This isn’t going to take long,” I thought.  But that didn’t jibe with all the praise I’d heard about the show from friends.  So I soldiered on.
Manufacture de Sèvres
     It soon became obvious that the first area was just an introduction because around the corner lay a room entitled Art Nouveau.  This is more like it, I thought.  Here were examples of how Art Nouveau translated into all forms of artworks.  There were lots of glassworks by the masters of the craft: Gallé, Tiffany, Daum...  Along with objects by Mucha, dresses by Worth, furniture by all the great names of the period, ceramics from the Manufacture de Sèvres and even a book on bull-fighting whose binding was the work of Goya himself.  Several display cases spotlighted women’s jewelry, and especially hair combs that held in place those elaborate turn-of-the-century hairdos.
Mother and child - Paul Troubetzkoy
     The following room was named Paris, Capital of the Arts. And it set about stating its case with myriad paintings, statues, photos and posters.  An unfinished head by Rodin showed how the famous sculptor worked up his masterpieces, layer by layer sometimes - a fascinating peek under the artistic skirts of a genius. And there were other masterful works here by names not familiar to me:  sculptor Paul Troubetzkoy and painters such as Albert Edelfelt, Tony Robert-Fleury or Eugène-Samuel Grasset.  It was the most museum-like of all the rooms and filled to the brim with wondrous examples of various versions of Art Nouveau.
     Then came a room called The Myth of the Parisian Woman.  As its name implies, the focus here was squarely on fashion.  Many cases displayed clothing of the era, from simple to elaborate.  But the reputation for Paris being the be-all-and-end-all of fashion was also backed up by photos as well as portraits of women who epitomized the Paris Look of the era.
     And once you’re all dressed up, where do you go?  Out!  Paris By Night, the next room, covered all the choices ladies - and their accompanying gentlemen, of course - had at their fingertips.  Vestiges of the panoply of theaters, music halls and other divertissements of France’s capital. My beloved Montmartre figured well here, with the Chat Noir cabaret and much Toulouse-Lautrec. But on the more seamy side, a small central room (womb?) crystallized the ladies of the night for whom Paris was notorious, with period nudie postcards and even a strange chair from one of the rich men’s brothels.  Quite an education, this room.
     The last room was Paris en scène, focusing on the silver screen through posters and photos.  In a side room looped the 1902 Méliès short film Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), which amazed movie-goers of the period.  Not content with just telling a story - here one by Jules Verne - Méliès was the master of the very first special effects.
     Each of these rooms was separated from the next by a dark and narrow passage with mirrors on one side and film running on the other.  A kind of introduction into the upcoming matter.  A nice touch.
     The pieces in this remarkable exhibit come not only from the Petit Palais’ own fine collection of Beaux-Arts but also from other Paris museums that focus on this period of art history:  the Marmottan and its collection of Monets, the Orsay, which covers the Impressionism period from start to finish, and the Carnavelet, which specializes in the history of Paris.  It also includes artworks graciously on loan from private collections and from museums abroad.
     My friends were right in their praise.  This is a show that should figure high up on any list of exhibits to be seen.


A suggestion:  afterwards, to stay in the Art Nouveau mood, head for a meal at the Gare de Lyon’s Train Bleu or Mollard across from the Gare St. Lazare. Both have a décor that will bring what you’ve seen to life in a delicious way.


Paris 1900

April 2 - August 17, 2014

Petit Palais
Avenue Winston Churchill
75008 Paris
01 53 43 40 00
M° Champs-Elysées Clemenceau
www.petitpalais.paris.fr

Tuesday-Sunday 10-6, Thursdays to 10 pm
Closed Mondays and holidays

11 €, reduced 8 & 5.50 €

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Out & About: Exhibits: Joséphine



Some lives just flow along peacefully, like a calm brook running through green meadows.  And others are like raging rivers, a-boil with rapids and waterfalls crashing onto the rocks below.
     Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived on a tropical island.  She was called Marie-Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, which was much too big a name for a little girl so everyone just called her Rose, and sometimes even Yéyétte.  She lived happily on her family’s sugar plantation until hurricanes destroyed it. So her aunt did what people did in those days when they needed money; she married Rose off to a wealthy aristocrat in France. And at age 16, little Rose sailed across the Atlantic, leaving behind her family and her beloved island of Martinique to become Mme. Alexandre de Beauharnais.
Joséphine
   Rose’s aunt hadn’t done her a favor.  Her marriage to Alexandre was unhappy but fruitful. Two children were born:  Eugène after two years and then two years later Hortense.  When they were only 13 and 11, they were thrown in prison along with their mother, who was accused of being married to a noble, and what’s more a general who hadn’t defended the newborn Republic well enough in battle.  It was the Reign of Terror and Robespierre was feeding the guillotine daily.  One of the meals was Alexandre.
     Every day the guards would come to the huge, filthy, dark and promiscuous rooms where dozens and dozens of people were thrown together.  The guards had a list and would read off the names of those taken away to die.  No one ever knew if that morning would be their last. Marie-Josèphe and her children were held for over three months.  For 98 days, they waited every morning for their names to be called out by the guards.  Then on the 99th day, their names were called... and they were released.  But only because Robespierre had been fed to the guillotine himself.
     During those months, Marie-Josèphe would see, and perhaps do, things that people do when they think they are about to die.  It changed her to her very core.  Some say she became frivolous and of easy virtue.  But if you look at the way she lived her later years, you’ll know that it only made her wary of life, society and mankind in general.

Malmaison
Then someone introduced her to a young general from Corsica who fell madly in love with her, a short man with a huge desire to succeed.  He had a funny Italian-sounding name - Napoleone Buonaparte - and yet he found her name unacceptable and so he transformed Marie-Josèphe into Joséphine, married her and whisked her away on his mad dash to immortality, ultimately making her Empress.  And with it fulfilling a prophesy made to her back in her native Martinique: “You will be queen... no, more than queen.”
     Joséphine filled the role well.  She was cultivated where Napoleon was not and that lent him a distinction he wouldn’t have had otherwise.  She loved jewelry and was the setter of fashion, preferring a more natural look of flowing lines and what became known as Empire waistlines, soon adopted by all of France and much of Europe as well.  She sought a refuge from the imperial court - and perhaps from all the horrors remembered from those 99 days - preferring to live in the country.  And as Napoleon was often away fighting one battle or another, she bought a manor with land along the Seine River well downstream from Paris:  Malmaison.
     When Joséphine proved unable to provide Napoleon with children to carry on his legacy, the Emperor divorced her to marry someone who could. Malmaison was part of her bargain.  And it became her world.
     The house is still there, although the property surrounding it is only about a tenth of what it once was.  Buying up any land she could, Josephine put a buffer between her and the rest of society.  She did have illustrious guests though, such as Tsar Alexander I.  It was while showing him her gardens that she caught pneumonia.  Joséphine died four days later at age 51.


Two hundred years after her death, France is honoring her with two shows. One is at the Luxembourg Museum in Paris; the other is at her home outside the capital in Rueil-Malmaison.
     The show at the Musée du Luxembourg is small and consists mainly of items of Joséphine’s wardrobe, some pieces of furniture in the Empire style and artwork of her or owned by her.  A diamond-and-ruby brooch was particularly striking, as were the sapphire earrings next to it.  There are large placards retracing her life, as well as her actual birth certificate and divorce papers.  The exhibit is grandiose and spacious in its setting, which is rarely the case at the small Musée du Luxembourg but these items are rarely seen, so worth the time if you’re at all interested in the little island girl who became “more than a queen”. 
      The second show at Malmaison is also small and tightly focused on the love Rose Yéyétte always showed for flowers (and not just roses) as well as for animals, especially birds.  It is well documented by drawings of plants by Redouté, others of which are on display at the Musée du Luxembourg.  A highlight is the magnificent, sparkling robe embroidered not with silver thread, but with platinum!  At the end of the show it will be put away again and not seen by us common mortals for a few more decades, so that alone may be worth the entrance fee.  In addition to the artifacts, this exhibit has an artistic touch, with lace mobiles casting flowery shadows on the ceilings and walls, and it comes complete with a soundtrack of the birds that Joséphine loved so much.  The show takes up the top floor of the residence. 
     But the other two floors are well worth a detour.  On the ground floor are the public rooms:  the library and council chamber, the dining room and billards room, the sitting room and music room, which is delightfully sunny.  Upstairs are the private living quarters:  the Emperor’s apartment at one end, Josephine’s apartment at the other, and various rooms in between which must have seen a lot of traffic, given Napoleon’s love for his “Creole wife”.  These rooms are fully furnished and give an excellent idea of how Joséphine chose to spend her years both during and after life with Bonaparte.
     After that you can stroll through what remains of her property, enjoy the gardens and perhaps even visit the hothouse she had built.  Pick a nice sunny day to make the most of Joséphine’s little corner of paradise.

Joséphine

Musée du Luxembourg
19 rue de Vaugirard
75006 - Paris
01.40.13.62.00
Métro: Luxembourg or Rennes

until June 29, 2014
Daily 10 am to 7:30 pm
Mondays 10 am to 10 pm
11€ & 7.50€

and

Joséphine: La Passion des Fleurs et des Oiseaux
Musée national de Malmaison
1 avenue du Château
Rueil-Malmaison
RER A to "Grande Arche", then bus 258 

until June 30, 2014
Daily 10 to 5:45
Tues, Sat & Sun 10 to 6:15
Residence and show closed 12:30-1:30
varied rates 6-8.50€ & 4.50-7€


I should have posted this before.  Now both shows are over.  BUT Malmaison is open year-round, so you can always see the residence and the gardens and the hothouse Joséphine created.  It's just outside Paris proper.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Salade niçoise


When the salade niçoise arrives at the table, many people will complain “That’s not what I ordered.”
     Why is that?
     Because everyone seems to have their own idea about what goes in it.  Many times I’ve been asked, “You live in France.  Someone said I can’t put ham/cucumber/chicken in my salade niçoise.  The French do, don’t they?”  Well, in Paris you can get a niçoise with a lot of things in it that you wouldn’t find if you ordered it in Provence.  Even rice and carrots.  Does that make it right?  Do we really care?
      Any salade niçoise will include tomatoes, ripe (black) olives, and some sort of greens.  Most will include potatoes, green beans, hard-boiled eggs, tuna and anchovies.  Some, to be very Mediterranean, will include artichoke hearts and some garlic.  Several times I’ve seen it served with an American touch of fresh corn.
      What you don’t want to do, under any circumstances, is put ranch dressing on a salade niçoise.  That is the bottom line.  In France you’ll only find vinaigrette dressing:  vinegar, a dab of hot mustard, salt and pepper and then the oil.  (Vinegar first so the oil will mix well.)
     This being said, and without further introduction, here is what would pass for the “real” recipe for Salade Niçoise.  The proportions will serve 6, but you can dress the plates individually rather than serve it in one large bowl, if you want.  That way everyone gets all the ingredients.
     And yes, Drew Barrymore, it comes with the “little fishies”.  (Should you not understand that, go watch the opening scene of E.T. again.)

Market day in Provence

  • salad greens to line the bowl (usually Boston lettuce or red leaf lettuce)
  • 1 lb fresh thin green beans, cold
  • 2 or 3 medium-sized potatoes, cold, cooked and diced
  • 3-6 medium-sized tomatoes, ripe but still very firm
  • 3 hard-boiled eggs
  • 1 c chunk tuna (about 6 oz), flaked
  • 12 anchovy fillets
  • 1 T capers
  • 1 garlic clove, cut in half
  • pitted ripe olives
  • 1 c vinaigrette dressing
  • chopped fresh herbs such as chervil and tarragon (1 T each)
  • salt & freshly ground pepper
  • optional:  6 scallions, minced


- Cut the tips off the green beans and peel the potatoes.  Blanch the beans and cook the potatoes separately in salted boiling water until they are barely tender.  Then pour off the water, cool under running water for a few minutes or in a bowl with ice water so that they don’t continue to cook.  Drain well.
- Wash the lettuce, throwing away any wilted leaves, and spin or gently pat dry.
- Dice the potatoes and cut the green beans into pieces about 2" long.
- Wash the tomatoes and cut them into four or six pieces, depending on their size
- Rub the bowl with the garlic and line the bowl with the lettuce.
- Mix the potatoes and green beans together with the capers.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Then season with a little of the vinaigrette dressing, and arrange in the bowl.
- Decorate with the tuna, anchovy fillets, olives, and the egg and tomato wedges.
- Sprinkle the minced herbs (and optional scallions) over the top and serve immediately, with the remaining vinaigrette on the side.

Two tips:
- Remember:  both capers and anchovies are salty, so you might want to go easy on the salt.
- Small, French-style black olives are best, but canned olives can be substituted if necessary.  Large Greek-style olives are not recommended.  A word to the wise:  the French rarely pit their olives, so be forewarned! Otherwise your dentist may be a very happy puppy.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Garden

As many of my friends like to hear about my Paris garden, I’ve decided to write about what it takes to maintain a garden in Montmartre, tiny though it may be.

Ground zero
Life in Paris is many things.  One thing it usually is not is a private garden.
First of all, a thorough sweeping
     Which is why I'm very lucky to have found this small patch in Montmartre.  It's well hidden behind two sets of doors and a weathered white gate. The garden shields me from the rest of the building and the building in return shields the garden from the noise of the street.
Unhappy herb garden
     It’s its own little world, peopled only by me, invited guests and a merle chanteur, a singing blackbird like the one in the Beatles song.

The climate of the City of Light is milder than it should be at this latitude (the same as Labrador).  It’s semi-oceanic, the Atlantic being just 125 miles down the Seine River, so although Paris does have four seasons, plants can still over-winter outdoors.  Occasionally I’ll fall in love with a climatically unsuitable plant, such as the luxuriant white Stephanotis floribunda that I planted in the ground, not knowing it was a semi-tropical jasmine from Madagascar.  It froze to death in the harshest winter Paris had known in decades.  But all in all, the survival rate among my perennials is good.
Pierre de Ronsard
     Winding gracefully up the trellis are different types of ivy.  There were also two clematis, but one was uprooted by someone while I was gone.  I don’t know who would do that, or why, but it left the trellis pretty bare, so I found a wonderful pink climbing rosebush, a Pierre de Ronsard, named after the 16th century French poet who wrote “Mignonne, allons voir si la rose / Qui ce matin avait déclose...”, his warning to the young Cassandre that roses, like her youth, last but a moment.  (My medieval French professor, Guy Mermier, would be so proud I remembered that!)  Pierre is now settling in near a dark pink peony in the corner and I hope they find there’s enough sun and water to want to stick around.  Maybe I should name her Cassandre.
Campanula
     On the less-shaded north perimeter of the garden proper, there are three different roses given to me or my family over the years.  They don’t bear too many flowers but they keep their green leaves all year round, and that’s welcome in the greyness of winter.  They share space with hyacinths that grow back every spring from their bulbs, which I’ve planted over the years after they finish gracing my interior with their flowers and fragrance.  There’s also a fuchsia that replaced the one that perished in The Great Freeze of 20012-13, and I was glad to see new sprouts - something I always hope for.  Edging all this are many campanula, with their tiny lavender bells.  Those that get the most sun give the most flowers, but even in the shade their leaves last year-round.
     All this needs tending when I arrive, but it’s there waiting faithfully in any season.

Hanging garden
That leaves, however, the annuals.  Which, as their name implies, have to be replaced annually.
     Last year, two of the neighborhood florists closed, and the year before that The Major Player, Monceau Fleurs, was replaced by a pastry shop.  Which still left two florists.  And then a new one opened.  They all carry the usual suspects: geraniums, petunias, carnations, etc.  The farthest shop, run by a charming Vietnamese couple, is almost down on the boulevard that once was the Montmartre-Paris border.  They have a much wider selection than the others - and a bit cheaper - so that’s my destination of choice.  I make numerous trips back up the hill, balancing boxes of flowers in both hands.  (Out of curiosity, I did some research and discovered the difference in altitude between the flower shop and my garden is about 85 meters according to GPS.  That works out to 275 feet.  Put that into stories with a 10 ft ceiling and it’s the equivalent of walking up about 27 flights.)
Lavender
   Most of the flowers I bring back from that farthest shop are impatiens.  That’s because of the three-story-tall cherry laurel tree just outside my window.  Cherry laurels are not supposed to grow that tall, but no one told her.  She casts fairly dense shade over two-thirds of the in-ground garden (as opposed to the planters) so impatiens does the trick.  Because of the shade, I choose white flowers, with a few dark pink for an accent.   It takes four dozen to cover this part of the garden, which is ruled over by my rooster - symbol of France - although this one was made in Africa from scrap metal artistically twisted and shaped into iron feathers.  (There are other animals that small children love to hunt for - a frog, a turtle, a hedgehog, a chicken and a songbird - all brought back from trips to far places.)
Pansies
     In addition to this in-ground section, there are planters on the patio along all three walls of the garden, as well as six more hanging from my wall of windows.  In them are some perennials, such as ivy, but every year I add a few carnations or marigolds for a touch of color, and last fall’s pansies have reflowered to add yet another shade to the palette.  In prevision of the rest of the summer, I seeded some nasturtiums to spill down the front of the boxes, and blue morning glory seeds in the back that sprouted within the week and are already plotting to climb up the windows.
     But for anything a bit more exotic, you need to cart yourself across town to Truffaut Nurseries.  The trip entails two different Métro lines, but with a good book that goes by fast.  The problem comes in bringing home the booty.
     This time, I went there to buy some hostas for the Very Dark Place at the foot of the cherry laurel where a maidenhair fern seems to enjoy it, and also a blueberry bush to keep the blackberry company.  Unfortunately for me, I’m rarely in Paris when the berries appear, but that may be one reason the merle chanteur has elected residence in our courtyard. One year he, or a relative, stole my cherry tomatoes just before they were ripe, leaving behind only the inedible green stem for me.
     Juggling my purchases, I set off across the bridge toward the Métro station.  Just then a free taxi pulled up and I flagged him down.  It’s a fair distance to my house and the driver and I got to talking.  Turns out he’s a gardener and was hoping, as I crossed in front of his cab, that I would motion to him.  We traded gardening secrets, him telling me about stables near his house in the far suburbs where he goes for horse manure... and did I want any.  (Strange things happen in Paris taxis!)
Herb garden by the door
As for my herbs, most of them are in colorful ceramic pots that could be taken indoors when it gets cold, but I never do.  I leave them out so my friends on other floors can snip off some for their cooking when I’m not around.  And even when I am, the herbs grow faster than I can use them up.
Thyme in flower
   Some of the herbs are old friends.  The bay leaf plant, for example, has grown tall and lanky over the years, reaching upward for the light.  To keep him company, I’ve planted some flowing oregano at his base.  I don’t think they’ll cross-pollinate and create a new breed of herb, but you never know once your back is turned. There are also two rosemary plants that haven’t achieved bush-hood but have valiantly faced several winters far from their Mediterranean homeland without too much complaining.  The verbena is also frail but undaunted over two years.  The mint - which usually is one of the plagues of Egypt if not contained - has been very discreet, so I planted a brand new one among its tiny vestiges, just to cheer it up.
     And then there are the herbs that need to be replaced every year.  Basil, of course - without which I wouldn’t know how to cook.  And parsley, which is a bit of a finicky, whining plant, but again necessary for French cooking.  Not to mention thyme, also a Mediterranean plant but less robust than its compatriot, rosemary.  This year I’ve planted some chive in a bigger planter, hoping it’ll stay around or pop back up in the spring, like my chive does in Michigan.  Same with the sage, but maybe I should have put it in a bigger pot if I want it to persevere.
     Anyway, time will tell.  Every spring I have to refresh the entire tableau.  But as my grandfather used to say, it keeps me out of the pool hall.